April 22, 1959, New York City: The room inside Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio fell silent as a chord struck by pianist Bill Evans rang out. The collection of notes ended the first and only take of “Flamenco Sketches” — the last tune on the B-side of Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue.”
Recorded by Columbia staff producer Irving Townsend over two sessions and performed by an all-star sextet of jazz greats, the five-track album went on to be an instant success, eventually earning the title of the best-selling jazz record of all time — a position it still holds 60 years later. And yet, while “Kind of Blue” has become synonymous with the name Miles Davis, that record is far from Davis’ only contribution to jazz music. With a career spanning nearly 50 years, Davis was an all-in-one performer, composer and bandleader, and he’ll be remembered as one of the most influential pioneers of American jazz music.
12 years before the “Flamenco Sketches” session, Davis was 21 and beginning a collaboration with pianist and arranger Gil Evans. Burnt out after three years spent playing alongside some of the leaders of the bebop movement — a style of jazz characterized by virtuosic playing at breakneck tempos — Davis shifted his gaze forward, more interested in what the future of music could look like than what was going on in the current scene. Carefully selecting players for what became the Miles Davis Nonet, Davis and Evans put together a group that was known for having a light, airy style. This palette of sounds set the Nonet in direct contrast to the harsh sounds coming out of the currently popular bebop quartets and quintets.
The Davis Nonet got its first real engagement in September 1948, opening for the Count Basie Band at the Royal Roost Club for two weeks. One of those nights, Capitol Records talent scout Pete Rugolo approached the group and offered a contract to record an album. On Jan. 21, 1949, the Miles Davis Nonet recorded the first four tunes of what became its only record.
Over the next year and a half, the Nonet went through two more recording sessions and, in 1957, released its album, “Birth of the Cool.” While the record didn’t instantly garner attention following its debut at the Royal Roost, its influence slowly spread throughout the jazz culture as time passed. This was mainly due to its close-to-complete departure from the current bebop sounds, suggesting a viable alternative to the sound that had dominated jazz music for the previous 30 years.
Instead of featuring the uptempo, boisterous and flashy sounds of bebop, the tunes on “Birth of the Cool” are arranged and performed in a style much closer to that of the impressionist movement in classical composition during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Rhythmic movements of the instruments are — for the most part — smooth and controlled, and classical-inspired harmonies are created through the use of unison lines and part doubling; the trumpets and alto saxophones often carry the melody, the trombone and french horn provide tones to create complex harmonies, the baritone saxophone and tuba offer a bassline underneath and all of these sit in balance with one another. This unique set of instruments and their functions within the group, more akin to the sound of impressionist composer Claude DeBussy than to the furious bebop saxophone lines of Sonny Stitts, was new for the world of jazz music.
“Birth of the Cool” was initially shown little attention because, according to author Tim Gioia’s “The History of Jazz,” many didn’t classify the Nonet’s sound as jazz at first. Sounding closer to a Maurice Ravel chamber orchestra composition than a Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie bebop tune, it was seen to sit outside of the realm of what was accepted as being jazz music.
But as more musicians began to hear the work of the Nonet, listeners began to accept the idea that its sound and “Birth of the Cool” might be a lead into a new, entirely separate style of jazz. The record still features harmonies commonly found in jazz, extended solos and a strong rhythmic groove; it just lacks the velocity of bebop. And as this idea began to pick up momentum, a new style of jazz — known as “cool jazz” — started to develop with Davis at the helm, but he didn’t stay there for long.
Always one to hold the title of visionary, Davis shifted his gaze to the future almost immediately. After signing with Columbia Records, Davis quickly put together what became the First Great Quintet in 1955. Four years later and after a few personnel changes, the year was 1959 and Davis’ now sextet recorded the “Kind of Blue” sessions.
Often heralded as Davis’ Magnum Opus, “Kind of Blue” — like “Birth of the Cool” before it — became the frontrunner of another new style of jazz music; this time, it was modal jazz. As opposed to others forms which based harmony off the chords changing beneath the melody, modal jazz takes a different approach, basing harmony off one particular mode, or scale, instead of a series of chord changes. “Kind of Blue” is Davis’ exploration of this new form, and it quickly took effect in the jazz scene .
All five tunes sit firmly within the modal jazz idiom; two of the tunes, “So What” and “Blue in Green” have become cornerstone jazz standards in their own right.
Unlike “Birth of the Cool,” “Kind of Blue” found success immediately following its release. 60 years later, it still holds the title of best selling jazz record with over 4 million sales. And it’s maintained this popularity because it didn’t just push jazz in a new direction. “Kind of Blue” created a new language.
The record was the final herald of the end of the bebop era, ushering in a new chapter in American music with the first post-bebop movement. All its tracks are written sparsely with minimal direction given to the players. Instead of the complexity of the bebop 12-bar blues musical form or the lightning-fast chord changes on Coltrane’s famous tune, “Giant Steps,” each track on “Kind of Blue” is based around a simple melody built on one or two musical scales. This openness allows the players to play with a relaxed, soft style — something that bebop music never allowed. “Kind of Blue” is, for the most part, a quiet record, never resorting to a screeching saxophone solo to impress, instead offering listeners an easy to follow, nuanced soundscape built around Davis’ pure-toned, mid-range trumpet-playing.
After the end of World War II in ’45, America slowed down, and its music slowed with it. Without the popularity of dance halls, jazz music as a whole moved toward modal jazz and other simple forms that made for easy listening. “Kind of Blue” is often named as the perfect introductory jazz record for its tranquility and easy-to-follow solos, so it’s no surprise it became a hit all across America upon its release.
But as American life came to a halt, the upcoming generations started to look for something new, and Fender gave it to them. Invented in 1954, the Fender Stratocaster electric guitar quickly became a hit, and with it, the Stratocaster ushered in the age of rock ‘n’ roll. The Vietnam protest era of the ’60s and ’70s demanded a return to loud music — rock ‘n’ roll answered, America’s music turned electronic and the cool jazz of the ’50s began to die.
Never one to let himself remain anywhere except the forefront of the musical scene, Davis answered the electronic movement. America didn’t want straight-ahead jazz anymore, and Davis turned from tradition and started to experiment with a new rock ‘n’ roll style of playing injected with the improvisational influence of jazz. Released in the early ’70s by Columbia Records, “Bitches Brew” is the brainchild of Davis’ concept of combining jazz and rock music. With it, he once again started the movement toward a new genre of jazz — fusion.
Based in rock ‘n’ roll musical forms combined with a jazz-influenced approach to improvisation and harmony, “Bitches Brew” is everything “Birth of the Cool” and “Kind of Blue” aren’t. The drums are hot, the solos are aggressive and shrieking, and even Davis, known for remaining firmly in the middle register of the trumpet, ventures into the upper register with a vigorous, electric guitar solo-esque sound, especially in spots such as his ending solo on “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down.”
The entire record is heavily manipulated with electronic effects such as looping and phasers. In the age of rock ‘n’ roll, the combination of electronics and aggressive playing is what America needed to get back into jazz. As the ’70s and ’80s went on, jazz once again regained its earlier popularity, inspiring fusion, disco and the development of hip hop; and it all comes back to Davis.
Davis never stopped working and pushing forward from the moment he got started. From his days performing in the famous Milton’s Playhouse club with Charlie Parker and other bebopers to his rock-inspired electronic period, he continued to be not only a bandleader and player, but also an innovator. Davis’ contributions to jazz music are nearly unparalleled, earning him a spot as one of the most important American musicians of the 20th century.
From his birth of May 26, 1926, to his death on Sept 28, 1991, Davis sat the forefront of American music, always leading and always playing his role as a visionary, never willing to settle and play anything but the sounds of the future.
Jake Conley is a sophomore SMAD major. Contact Jake at firstname.lastname@example.org.